Lifestyle & Culture

Elsa Ho: Working in a Japanese company as a foreigner 

(Editor’s note: This was originally posted on Medium and is reposted here with the permission of the author.)

By ELSA HO

I worked in a Tokyo-based Japanese company for several years. Being the first foreign employee and a non-Japanese speaker, it was enlightening to see how a Japanese company struggled in foreign markets, trying to find a balance between its unique culture and fitting in to how other societies work.

Japan has long had a close relationship with the U.S., especially politically. Nonetheless, the country maintains its uniqueness in many respects, including recruitment and workplace cultures.

Prefer generalists with cultural fit and no work experience

When the company I worked for opened its first overseas branch, I joined the Japanese founder in conducting almost a hundred interviews with local talent. Compared with my experience interviewing with companies in the U.S. and in Europe, the questions my Japanese colleagues asked focused a lot more on understanding the candidates themselves, including their beliefs, values, and future plans. Most of these questions were never asked in my interviews with western companies. On the contrary, the skill-specific and highly technical questions that I always encountered in western interviews rarely featured in interviews with Japanese companies.

One reason is that, for Japanese companies, it is very important to find someone who fits the company’s culture and purpose. This has a lot to do with the lifetime employment policy that was once the norm in Japan. Since you are going to spend a long time with this person, whether you can get along with him is at least as important as what he is good at. It is even better when this person has not been “colored” by other companies, so the company can train and shape him from scratch. Many people know that upon being hired out of college by a Japanese firm, particularly the more traditional ones, one’s job title is simply “employee.”

The first year as an employee is spent picking up phone calls, serving tea, and following the orders given by seniors. During this year, the newcomers learn Japanese business etiquette, and how to conduct themselves as professionals.

For example, a few years ago a friend of mine got an offer from HONDA. She told me that she didn’t know what department she would be in and what exactly she would be working on, until her first day at work. It was hard for me to imagine until I also saw some of my colleagues being transferred to a totally unrelated department during their orientation period. Even I was asked if I wanted to transfer to the HR team in my first month, having initially been hired as a UX consultant. Since it is still quite common to stay in the same company for good (for many reasons including government policy — Japanese companies don’t usually fire people), one’s personal career path seems to be less important than the company’s goals.

It’s not surprising then that, when recruiting, many Japanese companies care more about what university the candidate went to than his or her major. Being able to get into a top university signals the quality of the candidate. In other countries, masters students are likely to get higher pay than bachelors students, but this is not usually the case in Japan. An MBA is another qualification that the Japanese job market does not value as much as, say, U.S. employers.

Compared with western companies, Japanese companies care more about the company as a whole than individual goals. This more or less stems from the national mind-set. I have met several Japanese that are very intelligent, but do not have their own goals that they want to pursue. Instead, they look for company with the vision and mission they have resonance with, adopt them as their own, and work hard to help the company achieve its goals.

Photo credit: Kobby Dagan

How can foreigners survive in Japanese firms?

In recent years, an increasing number of Japanese companies have been trying to become more global by recruiting people from around the world. Some even highlight that people who are not able to speak Japanese are as welcome as locals. However, these deeply rooted customs persist in most Japanese workplaces, making it difficult for foreigners to adapt. It is especially challenging for companies to hold on to people from countries like the U.S. or Europe, since the culture is just too different. People who stay are either passionate about Japanese culture, or speak pretty good Japanese, making them face less trouble at work and in life. I found that more Chinese and Taiwanese fall in this category. I think it is because Japanese culture is generally more appreciated in East Asia, and it is easier for Mandarin speakers to learn Japanese. In addition, an East Asian face looks less “different”. Japanese subconsciously treat people who look and speak like them as equals, meaning that they are held to a higher standard, expecting them to behave like Japanese.

For people like me who barely speak Japanese, an advantage is that locals are less demanding about meeting the Japanese-style business standards at work. Once, in a client meeting where I was the only non-Japanese in the room, I asked a client for some data. The project schedule was pretty tight, so when they asked when I needed it by, I said hopefully by the end of tomorrow. Suddenly, the once serious clients all began laughing, and I had no idea why. As we stepped out of client’s building, my Japanese colleague told me: “only you can ask the client to give us things in such a short timeframe. It would be very rude for us to ask them to provide something the next day”. The implication being that I was exempt from their rules, as I am not one of them.

Negotiating with Japanese also takes some getting used to. Japanese firms take a long time to make decisions. Seemingly simple decisions that don’t neatly fit into a firm’s existing procedures and systems require a complete consideration of all factors, beginning with how they contribute to the company’s vision. Needless to say, some people might complain that the company is inefficient, and does not react fast enough. To make what you want happen more quickly in a Japanese company, I was told that the secret is to show very strong determination and insistence.

I had tried to use this tip in situations where my employer tended to procrastinate, such as adjusting salary for overseas branch employees, or changing the policy for travel allowance. I found that as long as the argument is reasonable, by holding firm on my key points, I could push these very fastidious people to move forward.

Photo by me in Ichigaya during the sakura season

Perceiving foreigners from a Japanese point of view

For most of the Japanese employers, new grads from other countries usually have better presentation skills. My HR director expressed several times his surprise in how confident and eloquent they were in front of clients. English proficiency is clearly another area in which foreign job seekers often have an advantage. However, the extremely detail-driven, hardworking and punctual Japanese sometimes complain that foreign employees are not as diligent. They perceive foreigners as caring more about work-life balance than contributing to the company. This perception also comes from cultural differences. For example, if a Japanese employee is going to be late for work, even by only a few minutes, he will write an email to the whole company, or at least the team, informing everyone, apologizing and proposing solutions to avoid it happening again. In contrast, people from other cultures, Chinese for example, see being a few minutes late as not a big deal. Also, from a Japanese point of view, asking for sick leave can be taken to mean that you are not professional enough to manage your own condition, and are therefore less trustworthy. Not only have I heard about this from others, but I have myself been questioned by my manager, when I told him that I felt very sick because of a cold, and needed to take a short break. And while any single divergence from Japanese expectations can be explained to an employer, there’s an accumulation effect from many of these small differences, where Japanese companies might eventually conclude that foreigners are less reliable and trustworthy.

It takes a long time to build credibility, especially in Japanese firms. You have to keep demonstrating your ability at work, and avoiding making mistakes, as trust can fall apart once you make any mistake. After several years, a Japanese employer might finally approve of you and authorize you to make important decisions. Nevertheless, they still might not fully trust you as they do your Japanese colleagues.

Photo by me in Shiodome, a modern office area in Tokyo.

Should I work in Japan?

What I’ve described above is more prevalent in larger and more traditional local companies. Foreign companies like Google and Mckinsey maintain western cultures in their Japan offices. I was lucky enough to work for a rather young firm with startup atmosphere and flat organization structure. Only in some circumstances would I feel the “Japanese way” still hidden under the surface. Otherwise, most of the time, I enjoyed working in a culture I was not very familiar with.

Working in Japan as a foreigner can be challenging, but, as I found, you might gradually fall in love with its unique culture, excellent food, beautiful seasons and its clean, convenient and safe environment. You won’t know until you try.

About the author: Elsa Ho is a UX strategist and researcher who has worked in the U.S., Singapore, Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei and Vancouver. She is passionate about disclosing the unsaid in different cultures.

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